Joe “Hoser” Satrapa — RIP

“He never landed with his gear up”

Joe "Hoser" Satrapa
Air tanker 89, the S-2T flown by Joe “Hoser” Satrapa. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A well known air tanker pilot passed away March 17. Joe “Hoser” Satrapa was known most recently as an S-2T pilot for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection flying Tanker 89 out of Grass Valley, California. But his flying career was much more than that. In the Navy he flew combat missions over Vietnam in an F-8 Crusader and an A-5 Vigilante. Later he moved into EC-121Ks and F-14s and was one of the four developers of the Navy fighter weapons school, Top Gun.

Joe "Hoser" Satrapa
Joe “Hoser” Satrapa, in a screengrab from News10 video.

A few years after retiring from the military and flying air tankers for a while, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman personally called and talked him into returning to the Navy to again teach fighter tactics at Top Gun with the rank of full Commander. After doing that for several years he returned to the cockpit of air tankers.

Below is an interview uploaded to YouTube in 2013 in which Hoser tells a story about losing visibility over a fire when his windscreen was covered by retardant. Dropped by another air tanker, the viscous liquid was was lifted by rising air.

Hoser was a highly skilled pilot and an outspoken and colorful individual, characteristics that generated many stories. Here is a link to one about a simulated aerial battle. While flying an F-14 he scored a kill on an F-15 using his fighter’s 16mm gun, not a missile. The brass at the Pentagon were horrified, worried that if the gun camera’s photos were released the dogfight would scuttle Japan’s plan to purchase 21 of the supposedly more advanced F-15s.

Joe “Hoser” Satrapa F-14 vs F-15
An image from the gun camera on Hoser’s F-14 Tomcat showing a lock on an F-15 Eagle.

Below is an article about Hoser posted on the Facebook page of the Nevada Yuba Placer Unit of CAL FIRE. It includes the fact that he had his tombstone made years ago to ensure it included these words:

Here lies Hoser
A fighter pilot
He never landed with his gear up.

Jimmy Barnes of the Associated Aerial Firefighters wrote the excellent piece below. It is used here with permission.

March 18, 2019 – Thirty-three years ago, I was a Co-Pilot for Chuck Bartak on a DC-6 at Chico Air Attack Base. On the first day of the contract we had our pre work meeting With Chief Don (Bigfoot) O’Connell presiding. Sitting quietly on the couch was a tall, lean gentleman in a tailored orange flight suit. His appearance was so dapper that I naturally assumed that he was a U.S. Forest Service Lead Plane Pilot. Then I noticed that on his name tag, in addition to his name, there was one word in big bold letters. It read, HOSER, with a set of Navy wings affixed to the tag. I introduced myself;

“Hi I’m Jim Barnes, I’m Chuck’s Co-Pilot on the six, who are you with”?

“Just call me Hoser, I’m flying with that big f****r over there”. He pointed to Bigfoot and I realized that he was our new Air Attack Pilot.

“Why do they call you Hoser”?

“Well when I was a new pilot in the Navy, during training in the gun pattern, I rolled in on the target and shot all my ammo in one pass. The instructors called me Hoser after that and it became my handle for the next twenty years”.

“Where did you go to flight school for jet training”?

“Kingsville in Corpus Cristy”.

“Kingsville is Wingsville and at Beeville you attrite with the best”?

“I’ve heard that one before, what’s your story”?

“I fell on my sword in A-4 training for bad procedures and busting an AN-10 instrument check at the wrong time of the fiscal year. I was so close to the end of training that I was slated for C-130 school in Littlerock”.

“C-130s, that’s where all the bottom feeders go. You would have been a shitting post for some grizzly old Major, you’re lucky you flunked out. Flying instruments in an A-4 is hard, I had trouble with it too”.

I thought, this guy is putting me on. A fighter pilot who has both humility and empathy for the less fortunate, how could such a travesty occur?

What he said next convinced me that he was the biggest bullshit artist that I had ever encountered and there was no shortage of bullshit artists in the tanker business.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, the Secretary of the Navy called me and he wants me to come back in the Navy and teach fighter tactics and gunnery as a Flight Duty Officer”.

I had been around the Navy for quite a while and I had never heard of such a title. He continued on.

“I told him that I would only come back in if I could keep collecting my retirement pay and if he would promote me to full Commander”.

Now I was convinced that this guy was smoking dope.

A while later our phone rang. Chuck, my Captain, picked it up.

“Hoser it’s for you. Somebody from the Department of the Navy”.

For the next half hour, we listened to Hoser negotiate with the Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, for the conditions under which he would accept an appointment as the Navy’s first Flight Duty Officer. Turns out that Secretary Lehman, also a Naval Flight Officer in the reserve, had flown with Hoser as his back seater on some training flights. After what seemed like a conversation with an old friend Hoser hung up the phone and said;

“It’s all settled, after fire season I’m going back in the Navy”.

We were all flabbergasted. Beyond all belief this guy was for real.

“Holy shit Hoser, I thought you were putting us on for sure. That sounds like a great deal”.

“Yea, he offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse”.

After that Hoser and I had many long discussions about his experiences in the Navy. His career pattern was also about as unlikely as one could get. Combat experience in Vietnam as both a Fighter Pilot in an F-8 Crusader and a Photo Reconnaissance Pilot in an A-5 Vigilante. He had done the bomb damage assessment mission on Snuffy Smith’s successful raid on the Thanh Hoa bridge deemed the bridge that wouldn’t go down by Air Force and Navy Pilots. It was in an area called the Dragon’s Jaw by the Vietnamese because it was so well defended.

I was enamored by Hoser’s war stories and when I mentioned to him that he had really been through some shit, his comment was;

“Yea but nothing was as tough as bringing the Vigi aboard ship at night.”

“Did you ever fly an A-3D”?

“They tried to make me fly that piece of shit at Key West when I checked in to the Squadron. After a few fam flights in it I decided that a carrier plane with no ejection seats and an air cycle machine in the cockpit that a had a bad habit of coming unglued and frying the crew was not my cup a tea. Besides it weren’t no fighter”.

“I always wondered why Navy Pilots called the A-3D all three dead”.

“To get out of it I made a deal with the Skipper. They were looking for somebody to fly the Squadron’s EC-121K, (a command and control ship that was there for training exercises). I told the Skipper I would fly it for him if he would keep me current in Fighters”.

Only Hoser could have negotiated such a deal. It ended up that he loved flying the big four engine airplane and he loved his crew. He had a ring side seat on all the training hops and being Hoser he couldn’t resist f*****g with his brother fighter pilots. He would get on the tactical frequencies and give the Fighter jocks bogus vectors and fake bogie reports. One of his old Fighter buddies recognized his very distinctive voice upon receiving one of his fake instructions and his reply was;

“Nice try Hoser”.

We had a great time that year and between Hoser, Bigfoot, Chuck and the crew it was a barrel of laughs.

Bigfoot had a deal with the gas vendor at the airport a guy that was also named Joe. For every one hundred gallons of gas sold at the tanker base he would give us one steak. By the end of the week we had enough steaks for a barbeque. They weren’t the best steaks but there were lots of em. Then Hoser decided that we were tired of eating steaks. Joe the gas man came over to our weekly barbeque and Hoser made a request.

“Hey Joe, we’re getting tired of steaks could you get us something else like lobster tails maybe”.

Gas man Joe’s lower lip dropped.

“I can get you some fish”.

Hoser accepted Joe’s counter offer.

“Ok, fish then”.

The next week the gas man brought us buckets of fish. I couldn’t identify the species, they were about four to six inches long with fins, gills and a tail so we deep fried them up and ate them. They were OK but we opted to go back to steaks the next week. The thing was he brought us too many fish so we had lots left over. Those fish ended up being distributed all over the tanker base. Joe the gas man got two under the seat of his 52 Chevy gas truck. He must of thought that his colostomy bag broke when he climbed into the truck the next morning. Bigfoot the ranger got a handful on top of the engine intake manifold of his pickup truck so he had fried fish after he drove home that night. The worst case was that Joe but about a dozen fish under the seat of Major Aviation’s Pickup truck that was only rarely driven. The average temperature on the ramp was in the high nineties most days. After about two weeks my Captain Chuck used the pickup to pick his wife up at the airport. Mercifully the terminal was only a couple hundred yards away and when Chuck and his wife Shari drove into the parking lot both their heads were sticking out of the side windows. It was all great fun but I thought I’d never get that smell out of M.A.O.’s truck.

Hoser had a unique way of answering our company phone. He was working for Hemet Valley Flying Service and we were working for Major Aviation. On our phone was a tape label with “Major Aviation Only” written on it. Hoser turned Major Aviation Only into an acronym. When our phone rang, he’d pick it up and answer with what he would call great panache;

“MAO, do you have anything to do with fighters or tankers”?

When the person on the other end of the phone tried to respond confused by Hoser’s antics his next words were;

“Never heard of ya”.

Then he would hang up. When some of the folks from our company got perplexed and a little upset by Hoser’s humorous shenanigans my Captain would tell them;

“That’s just Hoser, he’s trying to improve moral around this place”.

Strangely enough that seemed to satisfy them and after all, it was pretty funny.

Hoser and I found that in addition to flying we had a lot of other interests in common like drinking, shooting and hunting. We did do a lot of drinking some nights and some shooting before tanker time and he was a deadly shot.

One day Hoser’s beautiful blonde wife and a gorgeous little girl appeared at the base. I thought, this guy has led a charmed life. He’s got it all, flew fighters, got a beautiful wife and kid and now he was going back into the Navy to fly fighters again. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast his life to mine which up to that point had been a series of unfortunate events. We had a great summer and as Hoser would always state with great eloquence “copious amounts mirth and levity were had by all”.

After that fire season Hoser went back into the Navy and he was gone for a couple of years. We kept in touch and he gave me reports from time to time. Like when he shot the all-time record score for the most strafing hits on the target at Dare County target range in an F-14. He told me about a pass that he made where he pulled straight up over the range, jettisoned fuel, then hit the afterburner causing a towering vertical column of flame that really inspired the ground troops.

Then I heard that he blew his thumb off. He had made a special gun out of a 20mm cannon barrel that he was using to test a new round that he was experimenting with. The aim was to extend the range of the 20mm by wrapping the bullets with Teflon tape and loading them up to attain higher velocities and delivering a longer range. His goal was to fill the gap between the maximum effective range of the guns and the minimum effective range of the missiles. He had designed and built the receiver and the trigger group but he always fired it from behind cover with the use of a lanyard to pull the trigger because he knew the action was unsafe. The accident occurred when he was loading it and it accidentally went off blowing up the gun and blowing his thumb clear off.

For most pilots that would have been the end of their flying career but not Hoser. With a miracle of micro surgery by his friend Dr. Harry Buncke, Hoser’s big toe was successfully transplanted on to Hoser’s hand. Before the surgery Hoser had painted a happy face on his toenail. When he woke up the first thing he was saw was that Dr. Buncke had erased the happy face on the toenail and drew a sad face on Hoser’s new thumb nail. It wasn’t a total loss though. Hoser told me that the Navy was considering adopting Joe’s new concept and calling it the Hoser round. After a tough recovery process Hoser was reinstated to flight status.

Eventually Hoser retired for the second time and came back to fly with us. As luck would have it Hoser went right into the S-2 training program. Fate would intervene again in his life when both tanker pilots at Grass Valley passed away within the same year. It left an opening at the base which was about ten miles from his house. So Hoser got Grass Valley Air Attack Base as his permanent base where he served for the rest of his career.

Around that time, I was flying the prototype S-2T, Tanker 180. It was my goal to get every S-2 tanker pilot that I could to fly it. The tanker pilots loved it because it was such a dramatic improvement in performance over the radial engine S-2. When I finally got a chance to put Hose in the left seat on a fire, I pointed to the airspeed indicator while in-route to the fire. I thought he would be very impressed that it was indicating 250 knots.

“Hoser, can you believe how fast this thing is”?

He gave me a quizzical look.

“Yea, everything is a blur”.

I suddenly felt pretty silly. I guess I forgot who I was flying with, to me 250 knots was a space ship. To a fighter pilot who flew the Crusader, the Phantom and the Vigi it was approach speed. He did a great job on the fire with it and he was very enthusiastic about the prospect of having it as our new airtanker.

I was in seventh heaven in those days flying the turbine. Then during the winter Bill Dempsay offered me a job flying a DC-4 in North Carolina during their early season. I thought to myself this couldn’t be better, flying an old vintage DC-4 in the Spring and the most advanced turboprop airtanker for CDF during the summer. I was sure that it was going to be a good time. My Co-Pilot that first year was a very fine one but he got offered a job as a Single-Engine Air Tanker pilot back there for the next year so his job was up for grabs. I told Hoser all about it and he asked if he could take the next spring. I asked him why in the world he would want to do something like that? He answered with the typical Hoserism;

“I gotta get my four-engine box checked”.

“I’d be glad to have you but the pay is low and we have to do a lot of our own maintenance. The average flight time for North Carolina on the State contract is usually only about ten hours”.

He was undeterred.

“That’s OK, sounds like it will be a lot of fun”.

I wasn’t so sure. I was a DC-4 pilot with less than 100 hours as Captain in it. My new Co-Pilot would be a top gun Fighter Pilot with a whole career flying the most high-performance aircraft in the Navy and he had been a Connie pilot too. Since I had been a lackluster jet pilot that washed out of A-4s I was concerned about how this unique combo would work out.

We were the oddest odd couple to ever climb into a cockpit. As it worked out Hoser was just the best Co-Pilot you could ever hope for. He was a great help in the cockpit even when we lost all four engines and dead sticked it into Sherman Field in Texas. He was a tireless worker and helped with all the airplane washing and maintenance that we had to do when we weren’t flying. We didn’t fly much that year, only about 5 hours of revenue time but we did do a lot of drinking. It was sort of like a paid vacation going to pig pickins and oyster barbeques washing it all down with beer and whiskey.

Hoser became an instant hero at the Kingston Airtanker Base when he got his old F-14 partner to fly into Kingston, to do a low pass, and land. Hoser had previously asked the Forest Service boys if they had a certain type of power unit (he gave them all the numbers) to start an F-14. Wearing his camouflaged cover decorated with a flechette, a dirty T shirt and cammo pants they thought he was an escapee from the luny bin. They informed him that no they didn’t have that type of APU.

Then the earth began to rumble. An F-14 appeared right on the deck, streaked down the duty runway, did an immelburger turn, came around and landed. He taxied up to our ramp and the canopy opened. It was Hoser’s old Squadron mate Captain Dale Snodgrass, call sign SNORT, who was now the Commander of the Navy’s whole Atlantic Air Force. Hoser climbed up the side of the jet with the engines running and SNORT handed him some posters for the Forestry boys. The canopy closed, SNORT made some hand gestures pointing to the DC-4 challenging us to a dog fight. The big fighter then taxied out to the runway and blasted off like a rocket ship. After that Hoser could do no wrong. All those guys were also in the National Guard and that was about the coolest thing that ever happened at Kingston.

Over the years Hoser and I flew fires together, hunted together and shot guns together almost always followed it by a couple whiskeys together.

Every couple of years we went to Montana to hunt with our old friend Vern and the great Vito Orlandella. Vern was an old tanker pilot who had been a Marine Pilot in the Korean war. He flew birddogs calling in Naval gunfire for the Army and Marines at places like the Chosin Reservoir. Vito was not only a famous tanker pilot he was a champion competition shooter. There was also nothing he didn’t know about an airplane. Once again, we did a little hunting and a lot of drinking and eating. We shot most of our deer off the deck of our cabin in the little Snowy Mountains. I never laughed so hard as when I was with those guys. I once asked Vern if he had a call sign like HOSER did.

“Yea, it was magnet ass”.

He explained to us that flying over a couple thousand Korean and Chinese troops he would get a lot of bullet holes in his Birddog on every mission. They would pass right through the fabric cover and leave the plane looking like Swiss cheese. To prevent him getting shot in the ass they put sand bags under and around his seat. Fortunately, they never hit anything vital. Vern said that calling in 16-inch artillery shells from the Missouri that blasted the little bastards to hell really made them mad.

As time went on Hoser had second thoughts about even shooting a deer. On one occasion Hoser shot a beautiful white tail four-point buck and he looked so sad I thought we were going to have to have a funeral for the sonofabitch. I guess it was because of all his deer pets back at his compound in Nevada City where he would spend hours feeding them and talking to them and he had a name for every one of them. They would walk right up to him and they would let him pet them. Hoser was tough as nails but he was also a very sentimental guy with great compassion for animals and most people. A few years later our friend Vern died. I always knew that he had lied about his age because when he was in Korea, I was one year old but somehow, he ended up only being ten years older than I was.

On our last hunting trip, we both felt the loss of our pal Vern and things weren’t quite as chipper as they once were. One thing was he seemed to be recovered from any inhibitions about shooting deer caused by remorse. We stayed in Don’s big beautiful house out in the wilderness with Vito and his wife Sandy along with Vito’s son Pat and his wife. In the mornings we all scattered in different directions and went hunting. Hose and I, being all stove up, moseyed down to one of Don’s other houses surrounded by mostly grass land facing a steep slope. We were sitting on a deck that went all the way around a little cabin. While we were sitting there, sipping whiskey, Hose spotted two whitetails coming up the gulch and motioned to me to get ready. They were about two hundred yards so we both took leaners on the deck railings. We both fired simultaneously and it sounded like one shot. Both deer dropped at the same instant. Hose was elated;

“A double spank”.

We drove my van right up to the deer, gutted them and loaded them up. We returned to the porch and had another whiskey and Hose proclaimed;

“Now that’s what I call a gentleman’s hunt”.

That was the last time we went hunting together. We talked on the phone almost every week mostly about flying, hunting and shooting and sometimes about communists”.

About two weeks ago I called Hoser and got no answer. I called again the next day and got the same result. I had a bad feeling but I told myself that they just went on a trip somewhere. Then Hoser’s wife Pamela began to message me and the messages got progressively worse. First it was that Hose had fallen and he was in the hospital. I called her cellphone and finally got through to her. We talked about preparing a room on the lower floor of the house for Joe to convalesce in. Then I got the message that he was in a rehab facility and that he was in too much pain to undergo therapy.

The next message from Mrs. Satrapa was that that Joe’s condition was far worse than they first thought. The doctor told her that he had a wide spread infection and would probably not survive emergency surgery. He also told her that if he did survive and he would be severely impaired for the remainder of his life. Mrs. Satrapa made the courageous decisions to do what she knew would have been Joe’s final wishes. Her last text message to me was that Joe had only a few days or weeks left and if I wanted to see him one last time now would be that time.

That night Pamela got a phone call from the hospital at midnight. She thought that it would be that solemn notification but no. The nurse told her that Joe just wanted to tell her that he loved her. The next day I went to the hospital and when I walked into his room Mrs. Satrapa was sitting dutifully by his side. Joe was semi-conscious drifting in and out. We told him how much we loved him and we talked for hours about what a great man and great pilot he was. When I mentioned that the boys at the ready room at McClellan Tanker Base sent him their love, he gave me a little smile. When I told him how proud he would be of all his young tanker pilots he smiled again. His wife Pamela talked to him softly and lovingly reassuring him that he had been a great husband and a great father. It seemed to give him great comfort.

Then his daughter came in the room to help support her mom during this terrible ordeal. The little girl that I first met so many years ago at Chico Tanker Base is now a beautiful young woman. She was so close to her Dad that the pain of his loss is almost overwhelming. In spite of that Cassandra and her Mom stayed by Joe’s side supporting each other and showering Joe with love. For me this was one of the hardest goodbyes I ever had to endure.

Commander Joe Satrapa was one of the greatest Fighter Pilots the Navy has ever produced. When he came into the tanker world, he brought that warrior spirit with him. He was a magnificent airtanker pilot and when he became a tanker instructor pilot, he brought all those years of teaching and inspiring all of his young Fighter Pilots to the job with him. Joe had a strong code of honor. He never judged people by who they were but by their conduct and their competence. He spent much of his time with his students inspiring them and helping them achieve their goal as he had done for a generation of Fighter Pilots when he instructed them.

Yes, Joe was a magnificent Fighter Pilot and Airtanker Pilot but he was a lot more than that. He was a loving husband and father. He respected and had great affection for all the people on the team that made everything work.

For me Joe’s friendship was a great gift and I will carry him in my heart until the end of my days. On one of my darkest days as we were leaving the Naval Air training base at Beeville, Texas we passed a movie house on the way out of town. On the marquee were the words “God Bless You John Wayne”. He had just died that day and I felt as if I had died with him. If on that day anyone would have told me that one of my dearest friends would be one of the Navy’s finest and best Fighter Pilots, I would have believed it inconceivable. It is not often in the course of a lifetime that you find yourself in the presents of a truly great man. Commander Joe Satrapa was such a man. His wife Pamela messaged me this morning to tell me that Joe Passed away at 10:00 AM this morning.

May God Bless and keep Joe Satrapa always and May God Bless his wife Pamala, his son Vance and his daughter Kasandra and give them the strength to endure the terrible pain of his loss.

Love and Respect
Jimmy Barnes

8 thoughts on “Joe “Hoser” Satrapa — RIP”

  1. Thank you for the laughter and the tears. It has been read several times in my house and the results are the same.
    Thank you again for sharing his life and yours.
    73, Eric

  2. A legend in aviation, great man and friend.
    Lived a life that many can only dream of and lived it till the end.
    As he told me on one of our Montana trips. “I’m livin it up until I make that laderal transition to la la land”.
    Hoser, I’m proud to have known you, worked with you and played along with you.
    Can still hear you yell “in coming!” That usually meant an afternoon wake up explosion at the cabin in Montana.

  3. Even though I did know Hoser, I feel much richer for having read this wonderful history and good-bye. Thank you.

  4. Bill-
    I live near Grass Valley and am listening to the scanner as Tanker 89 is flying on a fire near Timbuctoo right now. Joe’s old plane is being flown by a woman today, which surprises me as we’ve seen no write up about her in our local paper.
    A few years back we had a female in the spotter flying out of Grass Valley and her story was pretty remarkable. But I cannot remember ever hearing about a woman flying an S2 for CDF before. If you learn about who she is I hope you can tell us her story.
    RIP, Joe. I miss hearing your scratchy ol’ voice on the radio.

  5. Hoser was my IP on my FAM 1 in the F-8J when I began that training in VF-124 in spring of 1969 at NKX. He is every bit the consummate fighter pilot and gentleman of the old breed of fighter pilot. I’m honored to have known him and had the opportunity to fly with him as my IP 51 years ago.
    Padre ’67

  6. I was in Kinston, NC (the “g” was dropped from Kingston during that fracas from 1775-1781) during the Spring Fire Season of 1994 and well remember Hoser and Barnes. I was a temporary pilot and we all stayed in an old WW 2 Marine Corps barracks and I enjoyed the stories along with everyone else, especially the one during the DC-4 all engines out landing in Texas on the way to NC. I don’t know much about the maintenance of Dempsey’s airplanes, but they weren’t very photogenic. Hoser said after the fourth engine quit and they were gliding down, he kept asking Barnes what Barnes wanted him to do next, and Barnes finally yelled “Aw, shut up and die like a man!” I remember Hoser in the side yard of the barracks practicing with his bow and arrows and working diligently at a metal lathe for at least two weeks during spare time to construct “The screwdriver from hell”, a large contraption that looked more like a weapon. Near the end of the contract, Bill Dempsey went to, I think, Philadelphia to pick up a dilapidated two engined Convair something or other and had an interesting trip back to Kinston. Then he wanted Barnes to fly copilot with him back west when their contract was over. They took off from Kinston in bad visibility on that “Convaaar” as Dempsey called it, with marginal instruments and radios and very shortly returned. Some minutes later I walked over to the barracks and sitting in the old, small lobby was Barnes reading a Bible. From some of my previous experiences, I understood. Those guys made quite an impression on me, and their names still come up from time to time when the old NC Forest Service pilots see each other. RIP, Hoser!

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